Netanyahu Launches Likud Campaign Buoyed by Departure of Right-wing Nemesis

The prime minister celebrates Moshe Feiglin’s quitting of the party and says the center-left ‘wants to capitulate’ on the Palestinian issue.

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Benjamin Netanyahu launching Likud's election campaign, January 5, 2015.
Benjamin Netanyahu launching Likud's election campaign, January 5, 2015.Credit: David Bachar
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu officially launched his Likud party’s campaign Monday against the backdrop of the news that his longtime nemesis, MK Moshe Feiglin, was quitting the party.

But the launch, which took place at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds in a hall packed with enthusiastic supporters, was overshadowed by the internal battle over the results of last week’s primary.

Netanyahu used Monday’s event to announce that in the next Knesset, he plans to back legislation under which the head of the largest party would automatically receive the first chance to form a government. Currently, the president consults every party and gives the nod to the side that seems to have the most support.

The current system, Netanyahu said, gives rise to numerous small and midsize parties, “none of which can really rule, to the point that the current coalition broke up. I tell you, if change doesn’t happen, that will happen again in another two years.”

He also lambasted his main rivals, Labor Party chief Isaac Herzog and his new political partner, Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni.

Israel' Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Moshe Feiglin after the Likud list was announced on Nov. 26, 2012.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“They won’t stand up to international pressure for even a moment,” Netanyahu said. “I’ll tell you why: not just because they’re weak, but also because they want to capitulate. They just want to withdraw and concede. That has been the left’s path for 20 years now.”

Meanwhile, Feiglin held a rally with his own supporters in Jerusalem to announce he was leaving Likud — where his poor showing in the primary left him too low on the party slate to reenter the Knesset.

Instead, Feiglin is launching his own political movement, which however appears unlikely to be ready to run in the March 17 election.

Feiglin claimed he and MK Tzipi Hotovely both did poorly in the primary because they supported Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount — although other MKs with similar views did well. But he devoted most of the rally to attacking Likud, which he termed “a rapidly aging party. The average age of its members is above 60.”

Likud members spent much of Monday wrangling over the primary results. Michael Puah, a member of the Likud election committee who is close to Feiglin, sent a blistering letter to the committee accusing Netanyahu of ordering the committee’s election monitors to abandon their polling stations on the night of the primary, preventing the panel from supervising ballot counting.

From the moment the monitors left, Puah wrote, “the committee lost all real connection with the results, and there’s a possibility that it’s impossible to count them, that the records and results were forged.”

Likud sources, however, said the monitors had been sent away not by Netanyahu, but by retired Judge Menachem Neeman, who chairs the election committee. Neeman took this step, they added, after discovering that not all candidates knew they had the right to send monitors to polling stations, because Neeman considered it inappropriate for only some to have monitors present.

Puah also claimed there was a gap of over 2,800 voters between the official report on voter turnout in the primary — 52,453 voters — and the number included in the final results: 49,604. Given that each voter was asked to vote for 11 candidates, those 2,800 missing voters amounted to more than 30,000 missing votes, Puah noted.

Even assuming there was no actual fraud, “the results as they are don’t reflect the true results of the elections, so we must recount all the ballots,” he wrote.

Thus far there has been no recount; the checks conducted over the last two days consisted solely of comparing the final tallies recorded at each disputed polling station with the numbers entered into the party’s computer for that station.

But in light of the many problems discovered, Puah was far from the only person with complaints. For instance, MK Tzachi Hanegbi was recorded as winning 278 votes in Beit Jann even though only 198 people voted, while in Netivot, the 138 votes Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz received at one of the city’s seven polling stations were never recorded at all.

And at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, one party activist said, results from one polling station were entered into the computer twice while those of another weren’t entered at all.

“There’s a real suspicion that the irregularities discovered in the ballot counting were deliberate rather than accidental, in an effort to sway the results,” the activist said.

But in a statement, Likud insisted the problems stemmed from mere errors in data entry, and that the party had always planned to spend two days after the ballots were counted in comparing polling-booth tallies to computer entries to catch errors.

In most cases, the party added, the corrections would result in only minor changes — a handful of candidates moving one or two places higher or lower on Likud’s Knesset slate.

In one case, however, the recount could make the difference between a candidate entering the Knesset or not, given that polls currently show Likud winning about 22 to 24 Knesset seats. That is the battle between Hotovely, ranked 26, and former Shin Bet security service chief Avi Dichter, ranked 20.

Monday morning, Hotovely said she had discovered another polling station whose results hadn’t been entered into the computer, and that this station, in the West Bank settlement of Neria, gave her enough votes to swap places with Dichter. (The intervening slots are reserved for representatives of specific geographic or demographic categories, so they aren’t available to Hotovely and Dichter, who both ran for the national list.)

As of Monday night, Hotovely remained in 26th place. Still, the day before, Hotovely gained some 600 votes from a Jerusalem polling station whose results had never been entered into the computer. In the same way, MK Yariv Levin gained 1,700 votes, moving him up two places on the slate.

But one Likud activist played down such incidents. “True, it’s embarrassing, but remember that these are apparently the cleanest primaries Likud has known in recent years,” he said.

“Note that aside from the battle between Hotovely and Dichter, there’s really no significant difference in the slate’s composition, and this attests more than anything to the fact that the process was clean, with no complaints of fraud or deliberate attempts to sway the results. Nothing will happen if we wait a few days and let everyone who has criticisms discover more problems in the count.”

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